(This review is based on the Game of the Year Edition, which includes paid DLC that adds to the multiplayer and single-player experience.)
(This review, however, will not reflect on the Undead Nightmare expansion.)
Oh, Rockstar. You and I have this really peculiar relationship. Whether it’s shooting a bunch of gangsters at a sawmill, or going bowling with your cousin for the fortieth time, you still manage to create an entertaining experience with plenty of highs and lows that keeps things interesting. Still, I enjoyed Grand Theft Auto V, although sadly I could tell that people were going to move on soon, awaiting the release of the next installment. However, after sitting through the entire experience over the course of a week, I decided to delve further into Rockstar’s other works. Enter Red Dead Redemption, an effort by Rockstar San Diego.
In Red Dead Redemption, you play as John Marston, an outlaw betrayed by the gang he once rode with. As you get off of the steamboat and land in New Austin, you set out to find each of the members that left you to die in a failed robbery. So your story begins with a failed attempt to reason with Bill Williamson, a friend that went mad along with most of your old gang, which ends up with you getting shot and being taken to a doctor by Bonnie MacFarlane. From there on out, the story continues building, with more characters and an ever evolving story that courses throughout the Western border states and even to the border of Mexico.
Red Dead Redemption takes place in the Old West, as it finally enters the age of technology and law. In these dying years, you see the embrace of civilization and technology evolve into the West, where those who choose to live in the untamed wilds fight to survive day by day, and obtain what they need on their own. Rockstar decided to take this to the limit with loads of things to do that are optional, yet honest ways to make a quick buck. We’ll explore more on the world and its events later.
Red Dead Redemption retains the traditional formula of open-world sandbox third-person shooters that we’ve come to expect from Rockstar. Although shadowed by Grand Theft Auto V’s endeavor of having a massive world that’s open from the get-go, Redemption chooses to have three small, digestible regions, which comparably is larger than Grand Theft Auto IV’s world. In the current age where the size of your world matters, Redemption would probably be laughed at in this current era. However what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for in life outside of the people that roam it.
If you’ve played any of the recent Rockstar games, then you’ll feel familiar with Red Dead Redemption. You tap ‘X’ to run, aim with L2, and fire with R2. Holding L1 lets you bring up your weapon wheel and tapping it brings out or holsters your equipped weapon. Any context actions like sitting at a table or getting on a horse are with the Triangle button, and Circle is used for any personal actions, like anteing into a Poker match or talking with a shopkeeper. Some major differences is that up on the D-Pad whistles for your horse and Select opens up your inventory, which contains all forms of usable items or materials you can sell.
Something new to Red Dead Redemption is Marston’s ability to slow down time and select where his shots go, otherwise known as Dead Eye. Dead Eye lets the player temporarily slow everything down and tap the R1 button to mark where to shoot. Upon pulling the trigger, Marston will systematically shoot each mark as long as you fire before your meter runs out. As you progress through the game, you gradually unlock more of the ability. When you first get the ability, you can only slow down time, but later you unlock automatic target acquisition and finally manual marking. With weaponry, and your ability in hand, you travel through each region, completing missions and finding out more about the savage land you call home.
Walking on foot will probably lead to long spans of travel, but that’s why you have horses. However, you don’t have to go everywhere yourself. Simply set up camp or take a stagecoach to wherever you want (even a marked waypoint), and fast travel anywhere and everywhere. This makes playing the game much more inviting since it makes the pacing exactly what you want it to be. Do you want to ride to every location without a fast travel? You can do that, but on the other hand if you want to just go where you need to and cut out the travel time, you can do that as well.
Horses (and obviously carriages or wagons) cut the travel time down to a fraction, but you won’t just be given horses at will, you have to break horses you find in the wild yourself to ride. Naturally, there are many different breeds, all with varying stats from speed to stamina. In order to break a horse, you need to lasso it, then get on it and keep your balance as the horse bucks back and forth. If you fail, you get bucked off, lasso the horse, try again. No penalty is given for failing this. Although rather easy, you won’t need to do this all the time, especially if you break a rare breed that has enough health to survive a gunshot or two.
This is just one of the many mini-games you’ll be able to play in this game. There are plenty of things to do, from horseshoes to Poker, you will find plenty of things to keep you busy when you aren’t tackling the story missions or hunting down an outlaw for a hefty bounty. These aren’t poorly-designed filler games, by the way. These are actually very well designed, and in the case of Poker and Blackjack, incredibly well-coded. You can’t predict the cards that are out at any point, which is insane. For games like arm wrestling and horseshoes, it requires this odd finesse where you have to focus on positioning and timing to be victorious; Five Finger Fillet in this instance is even more so, since you need to remember patterns and be able to continually do them rhythmically and really quickly to win.
Outside of gambling, you can do jobs like horsebreaking or nightwatches to make a quick buck. You could even go hunting with the weapon of your choice and haul in a few hundred dollars by killing region-specific animals and selling them in a different region. Or go treasure hunting. There are challenges tied to all of this, but more on that later.
Along with these games, you’ll occasionally stumble upon random events, like a drunkard preparing to stab a whore or stopping a horse thief. Doing these nets you Honor and Fame, and the occasional few dollars. Honor and Fame are, in simple explanation, your morality system. To expand on this more, if you do good things, you get honor; while killing innocents, stealing horses, etc. will drop your honor. There are seven levels of Honor, and six levels of Fame. The higher level of Fame you are at, the less your bounties are when committing crimes, and the more likely people will ask for help from you. While having higher Honor will give you benefits like store discounts or witnesses ignoring whatever crimes you commit. However, having low Honor means that it costs less to bribe eyewitnesses to crimes and eventually, eyewitnesses won’t report crimes below murder. All forms of Honor give you different benefits, so no form of play-style will go unrewarded or unpunished.
If you commit a crime and an eyewitness reports it, or if a lawmaker sees it directly, then you are “wanted” and a bounty is put on your head. If you can escape the radius of where lawmakers are searching for you, the Wanted level disappears, but your bounty will remain. Going to a telegraph’s office can allow you to do one of two things: Pay off your bounty yourself, or use a pardon letter to forget one of your crimes. Naturally, you could surrender to lawmakers and spend time in jail.
So you’ve finished your romp through the land and finished the main story. What now, you might ask yourself? Well, now you can do whatever you wish at your leisure. How about gambling money, or hunting various animals in the unique landscapes? That’s where the beauty is of this game; you never feel like you have nothing left to do in Red Dead Redemption. If you’re done hunting down outlaws for the day, go to a bar and get so wasted you stumble around and ragdoll hilariously to the ground. Or how about playing a round of Poker, getting “cheated” out of your hard-earned cash, and shooting up the table? Or even running every single gang hideout in the span of 24 in-game hours? Anything’s possible, and especially, everything feels fun and plays excellently.
You have special challenges linked to doing various things, like hunting specific animals in specific ways (kill a bear with a knife), or collecting specific herbs in each region, along with the most detailed challenges like treasure hunting. In the treasure hunting challenges, you’re given a vague location on the map and a vague set of illustrations that tell you where to go and what path to take in order to find a pile of rocks. Under these rocks is a chest with gold and another map that leads you to the next secret treasure. Every time you complete five challenges in each set (then later all ten), you get a special perk or item upgrade like being able to carry double the amount of usable items (moonshine, medicine, etc.) or getting vittles (a healing item) from skinning animals.
You also have the online multiplayer, which allows you to do, more or less, everything that was available in the single player. Gambling games, horse races, PvP, gang hideouts, and more, based on what DLC you have and don’t have. You can choose between multiple types of online gameplay, from the regular mode, which means that other players can kill each other, to Friendly mode, which means you can’t kill other players. You can also freely make your own private servers so you can play with friends without the interference of strangers.
As you level up, you unlock more horses and weapons, and as you progress in the single-player story, you unlock more characters to play as in the online mode. While the characters don’t affect gameplay, the horses you unlock in the multiplayer gradually get better and more reliable. Also, while in a public server, you and your Posse (otherwise known as a party or squad) can do different objectives, like gang hideouts, and beat the high scores of other Posses.
Curiously enough, although not surprising, the graphics are great and very well-detailed in many different ways. This is probably due to the fact that having a smaller world to explore means that you can then make that game more detailed, but that’s probably just a coincidence. Everything from the facial details to the marks and scratches of the hand-smithed weaponry blend. Rockstar San Diego also managed to make the game as stable as possible with very well-kept details, while managing to keep the loading times down to a fraction of their other games (timed loading times are roughly 30-60 seconds)
However I did notice that, even at relatively close distances, that some textures would slowly load or the animations would reduce to have less animation frames. (This is used in draw distances to lower resource intensity and decrease the performance impact.) This wouldn’t be an issue, but as I found out myself, sometimes the game doesn’t register when to start rendering things out at a higher resolution, leading to some…interesting results. I also noticed some other oddities like ghost axes cutting wood. Or how about the infamous human animal glitches that plagued the game for a while? While hilarious, they are a bit jarring and should have been fixable, nothing too insane and game-breaking happened.
The music is well-constructed and suits the areas you reside in. While in Mexico, the music takes a more slanted approach towards the traditional tones and songs you would hear in small villages, however in New Austin, you would hear a more stylized tone of music that one might hear in the many Western movies that rolled through the 50’s and into the late 80’s and 90’s. Most are ambient; the occasional guitar twang and marraca shakes that resemble the sound of a rattlesnake. Others, however, are actual songs, placed between the three “acts.” There isn’t much home to write about with the music, but at the same time, it deserves to be there as it sets the perfect tone for almost every situation.
The voice acting is very well-placed and believable in most senses. On some characters, the voices enter uncanny, almost stereotypical voices. Like Irish, who has a stereotypical accent and constantly gets piss drunk, which carries over into his accent into uncanny territories at times. Along with this, the sounds of the various weapons you use are also tolerant of their own power. Strong, yet able to be handled. This is showcased during rare sequences where groups of gunmen roll into town and shoot into the air, similar to how gangs would in the movies, and it would sound almost identical. It just adds to the authentic feeling that everything gives off and drastically makes everything just feel better.